A disadvantage of print rather than broadcast journalism is that it is often difficult to convey tone of voice, expression and gesture, which, in the case of Brooke Duchin is a shame. Although she was reticent, at times quite happy to give one-word answers or simply say ‘I don’t know’, those answers merely reflect her determination to be honest, but tempered by great warmth for people as well as a deeply-felt connection with Nature. It was the reason why her book, Haywire, about her childhood with her famous Hollywood parents, legendary agent, Leland Hayward and actress, Margaret Sullavan, was such a tremendous success. She spared no truth but compassion elevates the writing and lifts it away from the sad, vengeful stories that have sometimes emerged from other offspring of rich, famous parents. She has lived her own life, brought up three children and divides her time between New York and her country house in Litchfield County. NYSD has a detailed entry about her in The List, if you want to read more or, better still, read her book.
So we both read your book with great interest – do you think about that book much now?
Never. I never think about it. But the other night, Peter and I had to be interviewed about our books in Connecticut, and it was a wonderful class of kids studying English … We were forced therefore to sit there and actually read aloud for ten minutes. Then we had to answer these questions, which I thought was going to be excruciating. But the excruciating part of it wasn’t the questions, it was going back and having to read Haywire … it was to me a horror … it was too emotional.
Do you think you could write a book like that now?
Could I write a book like that now? Well, after I wrote Haywire I was under contract to Knopf to write another book which was supposed to fill in the ten years, which I very carefully left out of Haywire, which is when I was married to Dennis Hopper, which was ’61 to ’68, something like that … but Dennis refused to be interviewed and he threatened to sue me if I wrote it. It turned out at that time, since he was still on drugs …etcetera, I was told that it would have affected his ability to earn a living … then a few years ago, my daughter [whom she has with Dennis Hopper] got married … we had to be three days together and kind of jokingly, mischievously, really just naughty, typical troublemaker, I said ‘Dennis why don’t we co-author the book?’ And he thought it was a great idea … but then he backed off. Now he’s doing his own book.
Could you envisage such a collaboration?
Oh yeah. Absolutely … he really is a very sweet man. Very sweet. And you see the problem with doing [this book] now, this was back in 1977, I had the artists. I had Roy Lichtenstein, who was a very good friend, and Andy Warhol, who was a very good friend, and I could have interviewed them but mostly they’re dead. All of those. Dead! [emphatically slices the airwith her hand.]
Did you feel exposed once you had published Haywire?
No. Because I’d left out the part that was probably going to expose me, which was that ten years with Dennis.
But you write in a very vivid and detailed way about the way your parents brought you up – you didn’t feel that that in some way left you revealed?
Not in the least. I felt it left them revealed. And certainly I would not have written it if they were alive.
You were as unflinching as you could be about their failings …
Absolutely. I was brought up to believe that if you’re writing something about yourself, you had to write the truth. That was the hard part, was getting it so that I thought it was on the money.
I expect a lot of people read the book because they wanted to know about the ‘inside’ Hollywood and that particular era, but for me what was so interesting about the book was that it was an exposure of a kind of person, in this case your mother, who has an intensely romantic idea of how life should be and an extraordinarily rigid way of getting there. At its most extreme it is what dictators do.
Do you feel that that is a reductive way of describing her?
No, probably not. Probably that’s the truth.
She really wanted this full life, but the pressure on you to achieve it was amazing. Do you now exert that pressure on yourself? What is left from that kind of influence, that level of expectation?
Well actually Mother didn’t influence me nearly as much as Father did because I was ten years old when they divorced and my sister and brother were like eight and six, so I suspect Mother’s tyrannical nature probably affected them more than it did me … it did crush my sister but I don’t know why. And it certainly crushed my brother.
It’s such an irony that it was in search of something that is meant to be a delightful way of living life.
Well, a certain amount of tyranny is okay.
Do you think you are more a product of your era than you are of your parents? I mean your parents were probably not doing anything so different than other parents at that time, and in that ‘class’?
When I read the little letters and notes you and your siblings wrote to your parents, they are so eloquent, from children so young …
My mother did prize language … she was a wonderful writer actually.
Do you get tired of people talking to your about your parents?
No. They were really interesting people. Mother always told me that she was very shy. Now, you would not have known this and I laughed at her all the time for saying it but she could walk into a room and everybody just stopped. Very few people have that kind of magnetism. And then she was just fabulous socially.
Why did she want to become an actress?
I don’t know.
Is it a burden to have famous parents?
Well, it wasn’t a burden for me, I don’t know why. I think it was burden for Jane Fonda. She was definitely in competition with her father.
Has the whole nature of celebrity changed or is it just essentially the same thing, different era?
Look at Paris Hilton. In those days she would have been laughed at but now she’s on the front of every newspaper …I think it’s terrifying. It shows you something about America that’s really not very attractive.
Do you think the stars from your mother’s era were more substantial?
They seemed a bit classier. They were certainly better educated … and they’d been through the First World War and they’d been through the Second World War, and people were still drafted. If there a draft now there wouldn’t be the war that we’re having. When I was born we’d just been through the Depression so things were more serious.
What is your attitude towards death? Already in the short space of our conversation you have mentioned so many people whom you loved, who are now dead. Do you have a more philosophical attitude towards it as you get older?
I’ve always had a philosophical attitude towards it. It’s not something I’m remotely afraid of or care about one way or the other. I don’t like the idea of pain. I wouldn’t like to be that poor girl on the cover of Newsweek. Did you see that? The leg, gone, blasted off. It’s about Iraq and about how well, or not well, we’re taking care of our soldiers.
Are you politically engaged?
Engaged? Isn’t everybody somewhat? I don’t see how you can ignore it. It’s just a nightmare. When it comes time to I will vote for Obama. I think he’s wonderful, I think he’s fabulous. Just what we need. I don’t like Hillary. I just think she’s too ambitious. She’s too involved with the money.
What have you done in your life that you’ve found the most satisfying?
Gardening doesn’t seem to be that easy. You fail more than you succeed.
You certainly do. But I don’t mind failure either.
So you’re not frightened of failure.
Not in the least. There are very few things that frighten me. People are afraid of spiders and snakes and animals and all that … I’m not afraid of any live thing. The only thing I’m afraid of is taking a long time in excruciating pain to die, so I often wonder if I would then have to kill myself.
You’d have a go at that would you?
I’d probably figure something out.
What do you do to keep in shape? You were never influenced by Jane Fonda, were you?
No! It was a load of baloney as far as I was concerned. I walk a lot. Most of my walking is in the city, miles and miles.
Is she still a close friend of yours? It seemed like you had a really lovely friendship.
I haven’t seen Jane in a long time. We parted company long ago with the Black Panthers when she was Hanoi Jane. I’m sure that the day I die I’ll think of Jane but you know, she’s now on some other track.
What do you look for in a friend? Humor. A certain honesty. An ability to face reality.